In a pivotal scene in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem Finch, brother of the novel’s protagonist, reacts in tears to the news that Tom Robinson has been found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit. “I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world,” he says, “least that’s what they seemed like.” Though Lee’s novel was set in small-town Alabama, I had similar feelings about my native North Carolina in the wake of the passage of House Bill 2, which bans all local non-discrimination ordinances with protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, among other things. As a gay man from Charlotte, this hurts deeply.
House Bill 2 has its roots in 2012, the first time in decades that North Carolina’s governor’s mansion and legislature were both under Republican control. One of the first items on their agenda was Amendment 1, a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and when the votes were cast, the divisions were manifest: Urban areas, namely Charlotte and the Triangle area, voted against the amendment; rural areas voted for it. Personally, I felt fairly confident that the people I cared about—family, friends, colleagues—had voted no, and the way forward for the LGBTQ community and its allies was clear: They had to focus on changing public opinion. I could still believe after that vote that North Carolina folks were the best folks in the world.
After Amendment 1 was struck down and the Supreme Court overturned all same-sex marriage bans, the fight was not over: People in Charlotte were still not protected against discrimination based on their gender and sexual orientation. The City Council of Charlotte got to work in 2015 to pass Charlotte’s first non-discrimination ordinance, and controversy arose over the so-called “bathroom bill,” a provision that would allow transgender people to use either a men’s or women’s restroom based on their gender identity. The bill failed in 2015, but after LGBTQ activists worked to elect new members to the city council, it ultimately passed by a 7–4 vote. It was truly a victory for LGBTQ people specifically and representative democracy generally. North Carolina folks were the best in the world!
During the lead-up to the vote, like any good alumni of the Roosevelt Institute @ UNC Chapel Hill, I did some research on similar non-discrimination ordinances in nearly 20 other major cities. I found no instances in which men used such ordinances to enter bathrooms and prey on women. The opposition was based in fear, not facts.
This same fear led the Republican-dominated General Assembly to pass HB2 in an emergency session last week. Released to the public and to representatives mere hours before the vote took place, HB2 goes far beyond striking down Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance: It bans all local non-discrimination ordinances, makes it illegal for municipalities to raise the minimum wage above the state level for public contracts, and sets forth a statewide non-discrimination policy that both excludes LGBTQ citizens from protection and eliminates the right of any citizen to bring an employment discrimination lawsuit in state court.
I watched in horror on social media as the power brokers rewrote the rules to favor their regime. It took the government of our state 12 hours to dismantle Charlotte’s ordinance and write discrimination into state law. I held out hope that Governor Pat McCrory would do what Georgia’s governor did in the face of such a bill and wait for the details to marinate with the business and civic community so that he could point to the backlash and veto it. He did not. I held out hope that he might adhere to the conservative principle of strong local governance, and respect the decision of Charlotte’s local government. He did not.
In the other political fights I described, there was always a clear way forward in defeat. I do not know what that way forward is now. It’s not changing our state government; even though our state is divided quite evenly in terms of political party membership, the gerrymandered electoral map has given the GOP control of 108 out of the 170 seats in the General Assembly. Redistricting won’t happen until 2020; until then, the democratic process won’t work. The law will be challenged in court, but the courts themselves may be deadlocked due to Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider a Supreme Court nominee. As such, there is little hope that this bigotry against LGBTQ people can be reversed any time soon.
The deep hurt I feel over HB2 is rooted in my lack of hope, but it stems from other places, too. What can be particularly stinging is when the people who both care about me and support protections for the LGBTQ community nevertheless hurt me and the LGBTQ community when they repeatedly vote, due mostly to political party loyalty, for politicians fundamentally opposed to the LGBTQ community. In other words, the same people who voted no on Amendment 1 will likely vote yes for the politicians who proposed it and House Bill 2 come November.
What’s next? I suppose the way forward is to continue the campaign that began after Amendment 1 was passed—a campaign to change the hearts and minds of North Carolinians and convince them that their LGBTQ brothers and sisters are worthy of protection against discrimination. Campaigns for social justice are easy enough to propose, but they require justifying one’s worth over and over again, which can be rewarding, but is mostly exhausting and overwhelming—even dangerous. LGBTQ activists have been doing this work for a long time; the tragedy of HB 2 is that their efforts were slowly succeeding at the local level throughout North Carolina.
I look back at Jem Finch’s reaction, and the word that stands out is “seemed.” I always thought that North Carolina folks were the best folks in the world, but for now, they only seem like the best folks in the world. Ironic, given our state motto: Esse quam videri—to be, rather than to seem.